Essays In Idleness Notes From Underground

White Writing: On The Culture Of Letters In South Africa by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of essays on South African writing by white people. The essays are arranged roughly in chronological order by what they describe, though they were written at different times, and there is no thread of argument that links them together.

We discussed some aspects of the book at our literary coffee klatsch last week White writing, dark materials | Notes from underground, so I won’t repeat that here.

The first essay. on idleness in South Africa, deals with the first European (ie Dutch) writers who described the local people when writing for people back in the Netherlands. Their overwhelming impression was of idleness, which offended their Calvinist work ethic.

There are three essays on the literary genre Coetzee calls the “farm novel” or plaasroman. He deals with the farm novels of C.M. van den Heever in some detail. These were mostly written in the period between the World Wars, and dealt with the urbanising of Afrikaners, Most of them have a kind of nostalgia for a vanished or vanishing rural way of life, where the city and urban life is seen as evil. They promoted an ideology of landownership. In this respect they dealt mainly with the farm owners of the family farm, and paid less attention to the bywoners (sojourners, sharecrioppers). or the labourers. One thing that struck me about this (though Coetzee does not say so explicitly) is the similarity of this ideology to African ancestor veneration. It is wriong to sell the family farm because the ancestors are buried there and so on. The villains are the money lenders who get the farmers into debt, and then try to take over the farms. Some are Jews, some are deracinated Afrikaners, but all have the taint of the city and its values.

Another essay deals with the rendering of foreign speech into English or Afrrikaans. Pauline Smith, who wrote farm novels in English, did this by rendering the dialogue of Afrikaans-speaking people with Afrikaans syntax, moving the verb closer to the end of the sentence. This was more common in 17th-century English, so it gives the impression of being slightly old-fashioned. Coetzee thinks that Smith got this speech pattern from the Authorised Version of the English Bible. For example, “Every bit of news that came to her of Klaartje and Aalst Vlokman Jacoba treasured.”

Alan Paton does something similar in Cry, the beloved country when rendering the Zulu dialogue of a country priest into English. The priest has come to the city to search for his lost son, and here too the theme is of rural people going astray in the city. So Paton devises the dialogue to represent the innocence,/naivety of the country priest in the city.

The chapter I found most interesting was on Sarah Gertrude Millin. Though I had read a book she had written, a memoir Measure of my days, I did not think of her as an author, but rather as the wife of a judge. I read it when I was still at school, where I had been forced to drop History as a subject in favour of Latin, so for several years Millin’s book was the main source of my knowledge of 20th-century South African history.

From Coetzee I discovered that Millin had written several novels, mainly between the wars, where one of the main themes was the evils of miscegenation and “tainted blood”. Coetzee traces this concern to 19th-Century scientific theories, especially Darwinism, and the concept of superior and inferior races. In the 1920s and 1930s when Millin wrote her novels, such views were politically correct, especially in South Africa, though her novels were more popular overseas. But after the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials and the discrediting of Nazi race theories, such views became politically incorrect, except in ultra-rightwing circles.

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1. Some critics see the Underground Man as insane, while others see him as a fairly lucid—if maladjusted—observer of society and his place within it. Evaluate the Underground Man’s sanity, using concrete examples from the text.

2. The city of St. Petersburg is an important presence throughout the novel. Select one passage and explain how St. Petersburg affects the Underground Man. How does the city function as a character in the text?

3. Though the Underground Man is not meant to represent Dostoevsky himself, interesting comparisons can be drawn between the two. What are the most significant similarities and differences between them?

4. Dostoevsky was famously wary of the Roman Catholic church. What evidence for this bias can be found in Part I of Notes from Underground?

5. Dostoevsky had a great talent for showing his readers the world through the confused eyes of his characters. How does he use this ability to heighten, rather than diminish, the sense of realism in the novel?

6. Though elements of Notes from Underground are tragic, the text is not a “tragedy” in the formal sense. How does Dostoevsky create this modern, realist story in a manner very different from the classical literary expectations of tragedy? Which elements from older forms of tragedy does he include, and which does he exclude?

7. The Underground Man abhors the way in which progressive thinkers of his era worship reason, but he does not necessarily totally reject reason outright. Discuss his attitude toward reason and logic. What value does he assign to logical, rational thinking, and how does he make use of it? For a starting point, pick a passage and begin your discussion with a close reading.

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